Friday, March 18, 2011

The Battle of Verdun, 21 February-18 December 1916

Battle of the Week 2011-08

A battle occurs in nearly every war that comes to represent the character of the fighting in that war. When Americans think of World War II, we think of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, of the Battle of the Bulge, and of Iwo Jima. When we think of the Civil War, we think of the Battle of Gettysburg. Vietnam's battle is usually the Tet Offensive. Bunker Hill and Yorktown epitomize the American Revolution.

For the First World War, the battles are Verdun and the related British offensive at the Somme.

We get an incomplete picture of the fighting in World War I here in the U.S. The truth is the war, considered among everything that has happened since, is an event of minor significance for us. The war was far away, yet another European war we wanted no part of. We only participated as a nation for some eighteen months, and never had to deal with the aftermath of industrial-age trench warfare on our own soil. The war is of value to us chiefly as an object of morbid fascination, an event we contemplate with the same breathless disregard we direct toward a particularly gruesome event when it occurs a long way off:

Did you hear about those poor people in New Jabib? How terrible! By the way, I love your new shoes.

So it's really no surprise we don't know much about The Great War, and less about Verdun and the Somme. Our impression of infantry combat in the war is colored chiefly by movies like All Quiet on the Western Front--sometimes we attack them, sometimes they attack us, but the trenches stay in pretty much the same place. And there's gas. It's a convenient way to simplify things, but we forget the movie was really about the soldiers and not really about the combat.

On the other hand, there is every reason to forget the horrors of World War I trench warfare. The hardware available to the armies of the day--accurate long-range repeating rifles and machine guns, barbed wire and land mines--heavily favored the defense, so a prudent army had every incentive to stay in its trenches and let the enemy dash himself to bloody shreds against its defenses.

Except that battles are not decided by the defense. Even the best defender must eventually get out of his trench and attack his enemy if he hopes to gain ground and win the battle. And in World War I, that meant he had to brave the very same sort of defenses he had just used to protect his own position. Small wonder the battles of the First World War showed so little gain for such a ghastly cost.

Of course, armies tried other ways to gain the upper hand in the offense. Giant long-range howitzers bombarded the enemy trenches for hours, sometimes days, before an assault. Mustard gas and chlorine gas and phosgene killed some, horribly wounded others, and kept the rest busy donning their gas masks in the crucial seconds and minutes before an assault could reach the trench line. 1916 saw the advent of tanks on the battlefield, and airplanes progressed from flimsy spotters to the war-chariots of the twentieth century. But for all the new developments, the commander of soldiers in the Great War knew he could count on an immense butcher's bill for every yard of gain.

No battle epitomizes such warfare like Verdun. The battle was the brainchild of the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who recognized in late 1915 that the war had become one of attrition rather than maneuver--that victory might come to the nation who concentrated on killing as many enemy soldiers as possible rather than on taking ground. With that in mind, he recommended to the German king, the Kaiser, that the Germans attack the French fortress at Verdun. The French, he reasoned, held the fortress as an important national symbol and would defend it far more doggedly than any other target he might choose. He could, he decided, "bleed France white" at Verdun. He launched the offensive on February 21st with a 21-hour artillery bombardment meant to kill most of the defenders before the ground attack was even launched.

Bombardment might be too mild a word for what the French defenders endured those first three days at Verdun. Deluge or flood or storm might be a better descriptor. 100,000 high-explosive shells rocked Verdun every hour, leaving overlapping craters that remain there to this day. Surely not even a mouse could survive such a ferocious onslaught.

But survive they did, and when the shelling stopped they came out from their shelters--dazed, disoriented, ears ringing--but ready enough to fight. The Germans who attacked on the 24th of February found not a broken, half-strength garrison, but the same stubborn fighters they had faced for the last two years without a decision.

The French, for their part, played right into von Falkenhayn's hands. Not only did they come out of their bunkers and hold back the German attack--they began pouring reinforcements into Verdun as fast as the railroads could carry them. French general Robert Neville famously declared, "They shall not pass." French resolve to hold the fortress was clear: they would rather be bled white than surrender Verdun.

So the battle raged on. One by one the smaller forts outside Verdun fell to the Germans, but still the French held on. One French commander was replaced by another, then another. The British launched a massive offensive of their own at the Somme in July to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Von Falkenhayn was replaced as German chief of staff in August by Paul von Hindenburg, who had thought the offensive an act of folly from the start. Then, in October, the French began retaking the outlying forts one by one.

By the 18th of December, the lines had been restored to more or less what they had been before the battle began. Ten months of bitter fighting had produced exactly no result.

Except that almost a million young men had been killed, wounded, or captured. Total numbers were about even: 550,000 French casualties to 434,000 German. Half the total were killed. Von Falkenhayn had managed to bleed both armies--if not white, certainly to an unhealthy pallor.

A more efficient way to squander young men's courage has never yet been devised. That's the real character of combat in the First World War.


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